Arthurian legend has its roots in pre-Christian Welsh mythology. By the Middle Ages, Arthur and his knights of the Round Table were well known across Europe. Arthur was ranked prominently in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (1137), and his court was celebrated in the French and German epic poetry of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The definitive British narrative did not appear until the fifteenth century, when Thomas Caxton printed Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
In Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenever, White discerned a timeless nobility. He imbued his heroes with his own doubts, his self-perceived sadism, and his concern for a just and peaceful social order. A conscientious objector, White avoided conscription but brooded over the spread of Nazism. Impending war made Arthur an attractive subject; the “future king” was, after all, prophesied to return in England’s time of need. C. S. Lewis, in That Hideous Strength (1945), chose a variation in which Merlin returns to save England. The long shadow of World War II, which only began to fade near the end of the twentieth century, inspired many apocalyptic visions in literature, and such works frequently ring with Arthurian overtones. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) owes much to Arthurian legend, including a king of obscure though royal birth, a prophetic sword, and a wizard. These motifs, as well as the quasi-medieval settings of many fantasy novels, almost define a subgenre of fantasy literature.
The Sword in the Stone was for White a wishful reenactment of childhood, full of haymaking and hawking; long, brave nights in the forest; and magic. Far from the somber, druidical Merlins of other versions of the Arthurian legend such as Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (1970-1979), White’s wizard is a dithering bundle of anachronisms; he is comic and ridiculous but wise. The ghastly...
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